This post was written by Urwah Ahmad, Global Communications Fellow at Meridian International Center. This post is a part of a series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.
Ambassador Kenton Keith served as the Senior Vice President of Meridian International Center from 1997 until 2010 after a successful career in the foreign service. He supported Meridian’s works through the management of the professional exchange activities associated with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
Born on November 12, 1939, in Kansas City, Missouri, Kenton Wesley Keith began his interest in international relations while watching the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. He attended the University of Kansas (KU) and completed his bachelor’s degree in international relations and French in 1961 and also graduated from the school’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program. After he graduated, he joined the U.S. Navy and became a Lieutenant (junior grade) where he served from 1961 to 1965.
In 1965 he joined the United States Information Agency (USIA), serving in Lebanon (1965-1966), Iraq (1966-1967) and Saudia Arabia (1967-1968). After these successful assignments in 1968, he was appointed the USIA Public Affairs/Cultural Affairs Officer in Turkey, Morocco, and Syria and served until 1977.
After returning to the U.S. in 1977 he transferred to the U.S. State Department where he worked directly alongside the Deputy Director for Middle East Affairs. He served in this role until 1980 and again from 1983 to 1985. In between those assignments he served as Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.
Keith became a Senior Foreign Affairs Officer in 1985 and for the next three years would serve as the Senior Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France. While there, he promoted and led cultural and educational exchanges between France and the U.S. Due to this [important] work he was recognized and had the honor of receiving a Chevalier in the French Order of Arts and Letters by the French government.
In 1988 he was assigned to the Embassy in Egypt. During his assignment, he participated in a Peace Conference in Madrid, Spain in 1991 which was aimed at restarting negotiations between Israel and Palestine. His work during this peace conference earned him one of his two Presidential service awards.
On May 26, 1992, Keith was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Qatar. He served until 1995, making him the first African American Ambassador on the Arabian Peninsula. After this, he served until 1997 as the Director of USIA and then retired with the rank of Career Minister-Counselor.
After retiring from his celebrated diplomatic career, Keith continues to serve in various capacities. He joined Meridian in 1997 and continues to actively support other international nonprofits and the academic community. In 2001 he even temporarily rejoined the USIA as a special envoy to Islamabad. In a testimony in 2003 he said,
“As a long-term solution to the profound problems of cultural misunderstanding, there will be no substitute for public diplomacy.”
He continues his work today in public diplomacy through cultural and academic engagements.